| JOSEPH BRODSKY |
The reflections of Nobel
Prize winning author Joseph
Brodsky capture the mixture
of emotions that any outsider
feels when they come to Venice.
Caught between fascination and
alienation, Venice is a city that
continues to baffle us and seduce
Preparation for Venice
My workshop in Venice is a little more than a month away. I have been visiting Venice since I was thirteen. Over the years my interests shifted from medieval arms and dungeons to food, wine, and Venetian light. When I first came to Venice all I wanted to see were swords, maces, and the mythical dungeons of the Doge’s palace. The city was as close as I could come to time travel. It did not disappoint. Between the Doge’s Palace and Ca’Pesaro my eyes were completely saturated with steel forged with the intention of maiming, decapitating and reconfiguring the enemies of the Venetian Republic. As my childhood fantasies of knights and dragons wore off, a new Venice emerged.
Now as an adult, my girlfriend and I take a week every year to unwind in Venice. Coming from the hectic pavement of New York City, Venice offers a quiet, car-free refuge of long walks, too many espressos and little treats called cicchetti. We enjoy the meandering canals in one of the quietest cities in the world. Even on a busy day Venice only registers an average decibel level of 45 db (Times Square is 90 db). Not bad when you consider the flood of tourists that pound the delicate sidewalks during the summer months.
Always an Alien
Compared to my hometown of New York City, Venice is not a melting pot. If you were born in Venice you are a Venetian. If not, you will never be a Venetian. Its quite simple. The harsh reputation of New York City is not undeserved, but in her own twisted way, New York welcomes people with open arms. The population is not closed. For as much as I love Venice and could easily spend six months a year living there, I will never be a Venetian. They are a rare breed, more like Switzerland than Italy. We are invited, but always to remain guests.
Nobel Prize winning author Joseph Brodsky has the same feeling. When he wrote Watermark, he spent over twenty three years working, resting, and reviving himself in her waters. His limited Italian kept him even further removed, but it did not deter him from enjoying the Venetian life.
The flight into Marco Polo airport affords us a brief glimpse of the terra cotta crusted islands that make up the city of Venice. It looks like no other place on the planet. There are plenty of cities with canals, Amsterdam, Stockholm, Brugge…but there are none that looks like Venice. It is a rare combination of architectural DNA woven through an island culture which sees itself distinct from the Italian peninsula.
From the sky, Venice has no geometric order like Los Angeles or New York City. The city evolved before the modernist obsession with rectangles and squares. The roof tops are similar to flying over a canopied forest. Our minds can only imagine what might lay in store for us on the ground. After passing through the quickest customs check in the world, we head to the dock to catch a ride into town.
When you take the first breath of air outside of the airport, it awakens the senses from their airline induced coma. The arrival is simple, clean and exhilarating. One step through the automatic doors and the vaporetto signs point left. The signs from the terminal to the vaporetto are the only easy set of directions that exist in Venice. Once you step off of the vaporetto inside of Venice, the world becomes a tangled web that appears to have been designed as a labyrinth. But the second I feel the leather sole of my shoe touch the stone pavers, there is a crunch of excitement that rushes back.
There is something about Venice that makes you want to dress up. During the summer in New York I will wear a t-shirt, flip flops and a pair of linen pants. This summer jump suit will serve my dress, work, and casual conditions. But in Venice, my New York outfit would feel out of place. Part of being a traveler is giving up your daily habits and trying to adapt to a different way of life. This could mean trying some new foods, wearing different clothing, or falling into a local schedule. Brodsky says that since the city is so beautiful that we pursue the impossible task of attempting to match its aesthetics. Venice is not a camping trip outfitted with moisture wicking super fabrics and running shoes. It is a place that was founded on damasks, silks, and velvets that still adorn the walls of nicer hotels and palaces.
The feeling in Venice is not that we get dressed to impress anyone, rather we wear clothes that were handled by a tailor to blend in. The tourist is, without question the bane of every Venetian. The traveler, though only slightly better, is tolerated if dress appropriately. When Brodsky describes his first steps out of the Fascist era train station (stazione), he chooses the familiar silhouette of a London Fog jacket and a Borsalino hat.
Mimicry, I believe, is high on the list of every traveler, and the Italy
I had in mind at the moment was a fusion of black and white movies
of the fifties and equally monochrome medium of my métier.
The Light on your Eyes
The light fog that blankets Venice at night is slowly lifted in the morning. If you have never made it to the market at 6:00am, when the crates radicchio and pears are unloaded straight from the farm, you must set aside a morning for this delight. It will allow you to experience the light in Venice which is magical. Once of the main reasons that most cities cannot complete visually is that Venice has not given itself over the the aluminum clad shopping malls that cover most of the high streets in the world. The sunlight still reflects off of stone, plaster, and the greenish canals they way it did during Canaletto’s days. Brodsky distills the visuals of Venice with an incredible precision.
“It has the extraordinary property of enhancing your eye’s
power of resolution to the point of microscopic precision
—the pupil, especially when it is of the gray or mustard-and-honey
variety, humbles any Hasselblad lens and develops your subsequent
memories to a National Geographic sharpness. The sky is brisk blue;
the sun, escaping its golden likeness beneath the foot of San Giorgio,
sashays over the countless fish scales of the lugana’s lapping ripples;
behind you, under the colonnades of the Palazzo Ducale, a bunch
of stocky fellows in fur coats are reviving up Eine Kleine Nachtmusik,
just for you, slumped in your white chair and squinting at the pigeons’
maddening gambits on the chessboard of the vast campo. The espresso
at your cup’s bottom is the one black dot in, you feel, a miles-long radius.”
– Joseph Brodsky
The nights in Venice are quiet. Backpackers often have a hard time with the city because the club scene is non-existent. After 11:00 pm, Venice goes to sleep, locks up her windows and allows the traveler to traverse her bridges as if she were a sleeping giant. The night time is silent, safe, and undisturbed. When your curiosities have run out, or your heavy eye lids begin to picture the morning’s pastries and coffees, its time to retire. But sleep well because tomorrow there will be a new path to carve out in the well worn streets of Venice. And for those of you where were interested in the mysterious side of Venice come to the workshop and see for yourself.
Pick up a copy of Watermark by Joseph Brodsky here.
(We’ll be seeing each other),